Hoping to leap into the gap is Maoren Group, a $100 million Wuhan-based underwear manufacturer that is embarking on an ambitious effort to create a global fashion empire under the Miiow name.
Miiow will be "an international fashion brand that is proud to be Chinese," said Viveca Chan, Hong Kong-based chairman-CEO of independent agency WE Worldwide Partners. Before joining WE last year, Ms. Chan ran Grey Global Group's Greater China operation for two decades.
Maoren built its business on garments such as underwear, but the "Miiow by Maoren" brand is about fashionable jeans and tops, namely jackets and knits. The winter collection made its debut in June in Shanghai and goes on sale in Chinese department stores this month. Ads break in October, including an advertorial in the Chinese edition of Harper's Bazaar. WE also is helping Maoren develop Miiow's identity, marketing communications and retail-shop design.
Maoren is already showing off Miiow designs to editors at global fashion titles, hoping for early publicity for an international soft launch. Outside China, Maoren sees Miiow competing against brands such as Zara, H&M, Miss Sixty and Mango.
The value-for-money brand is an evolution of the company's feline persona. The word Maoren means "cat people" in Chinese, and "Miiow" is a sharper, hipper extension of the parent name. However, Miiow's logo, a white "M" on a luminous red background, is a crisp departure from Maoren's childlike cat-face logo.
WE kept Maoren's cat associations to leverage the existing brand's equity, Ms. Chan said, "and because cats are sexy, arrogant, fussy, unpredictable and have a strong personality, just like the new brand's consumers."
In China, Miiow is aimed at sophisticated 24- to 35-year-old middle-class shoppers who cannot afford designer labels but seek stylish, quality clothes. "Chinese fashion sense is changing quickly," Ms. Chan said. "Most brands are not catching up with consumers who want to catch up with the latest fashion and don't want to be left behind. However, they don't want to pay Louis Vuitton prices for everything either."
Maoren's desire to make Miiow a global fashion empire reflects a transformation taking place in many parts of China, where bold manufacturers of computers, electronics, cars and now clothes are starting to develop homegrown brands to compete against former partners.
Lenovo Group has taken over IBM's PC business. Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., which has joint ventures with Volkswagen Group and General Motors Corp., is building its own cars. And Chinese TV maker TCL Corp. bought the TV-manufacturing business of Thomson, a French media-services and -equipment group that owns the RCA brand and Alcatel's handset-production division.
Maoren, which has manufactured garments for companies such as DuPont's Lycra division since 1998, generates clothing sales of $100 million with its own brand and has attracted spokeswomen such as Chinese actresses Shu Qi and Zheng Yijian.